The scales measuring the obesity epidemic that is devastating the nation’s health – especially its future health – may ever so slightly be tipping back in the right direction, one of the nation’s leading public health advocates reports.

Dr. James S. Marks, vice president of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and a leading public health advocate, delivered the afternoon keynote address at the Healthy Schools Summit.

The signs are faint, but they’re there: Obesity levels among low-income pre-schoolers are down 0.3 percent. California has recorded a 0.4 percent decrease in childhood obesity rates, and New York City has logged a 1.2 percent decrease. Kearney, Neb., has seen its childhood obesity rates drop more than 2 percentage points, from 16.4 percent to 14.2 percent.

“There’s no one specific initiative that has led to these results,” Dr. James S. Marks, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told participants in the Colorado Legacy Foundation’s Healthy Schools Summit on Wednesday. “But the culture has changed. It’s due to many small changes that are adding up.”

In addition to a change in culture, science is also figuring out what’s effective and what’s not in the battle of the bulge.

“The science about what to do has matured enough for us to take action,” Marks said. “Those communities that have started to make changes are seeing improvements in the health of their children.”

Summit attracts more than 800

Marks was the final keynote speaker in a day that brought together more than 800 educators, policy makers, students and healthcare providers to celebrate schools and programs that are having a positive impact on students’ health, and to brainstorm ideas for doing more of what works, and jettisoning things that don’t.

“We’re looking for ways to shift entrenched paradigms that have outlived their usefulness,” said Colorado Legacy Foundation president Helayne Jones.

She sympathized with the health teachers, school nurses, wellness committee coordinators, and other school administrators tasked with overseeing school health initiatives.

“It may be isolating to feel like you’re the only person in your school who cares about health and wellness,” she told them. “I hope that today you’ll feel connected to the national movement. I hope that, in the end, our movement will become the norm, the accepted practice.”

Common health problems impact learning

Dr. Charles Basch, professor of health education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, noted in his morning keynote that recent research has focused on just how some health factors that commonly affect large numbers of students really impacts their education. More importantly, schools can effectively address these problems.

For example, vision problems typically affect 20 percent of youngsters.

“If you can’t see, it’s much harder to acquire literacy skills,” he said.

So schools that conduct vision screening, and reach out to parents and teachers about the need to correct children’s vision, will see reading scores go up.

“On-site provision of glasses is a worthwhile investment,” he said.

Likewise, an estimated 14 percent of students suffer from asthma, though the ailment disproportionately impacts urban minority students.

“Asthma per se is not so much a problem,” Basch said. “What’s a problem is poorly controlled asthma.”

Thus, schools are wise to eliminate as many environmental triggers as possible, and to educate students about proper treatment and control of the disease.

An estimated one child in five comes to school having skipped breakfast, Basch said. So instituting a universal school breakfast program and allowing students to eat breakfast in the classroom are proven strategies for addressing that nutritional deficit.

“Unfortunately, some of the most widely distributed school health programs have absolutely no evidence that they’re effective,” he said. “It’s important that we use quality health programs, rather than selecting programs based on politics or ideology.”

“We don’t need more research to know what to do,” he added. “We just need to figure out how to put what we already know into practice in the nation’s schools.”

America the outlier in its approach to education

Journalist Matt Miller, author of The Two Percent Solution and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, came with his own list of steps American schools should take in order to provide students with the skills they’ll need to compete in a global economy. He spelled them out in his lunchtime keynote address.

“America has become an outlier nation in the way we fund, govern and administer schools, without the results to defend on practices,” Miller said.

He said serious school reform would begin with “a crusade to make teaching the career of choice for our most talented young people.” It would also include universal preschool, a longer school day and school year, national core standards and a more equitable funding strategy that would ensure the best teachers and principals go to the poorest schools and to the students who most desperately need them to survive.

In addition to setting forth challenges confronting schools, the summit also spotlighted some schools that have done outstanding work in improving school wellness. Thirty-two schools received $42,000 in awards, ranging from $5,000 to $500.

For instance, Manitou Springs Elementary is building an outside classroom called “the earthroom” to encourage students to study outside and learn about Colorado native plants. Skoglund Middle School in Center has seen a 20 percent drop in alcohol use and a 12 percent drop in tobacco use among its students. And Place Bridge Academy in Denver, a K-8 magnet school for refugees, has formed collaborative partnerships with more than 20 community organizations to better serve its students and is in the process of construction a full-size family clinic within the school.